Friday, October 26, 2012

“We are the Good Ones”, Lot/Lut & Abraham – & the Jewish Muslim Relationship

Today, Oct 26, Muslims will be celebrating Eid Al Adha. The first religious conflict I ever became aware of between Jews and Muslims relates to this commemoration of Abraham’s nearly sacrificing his son. The Torah states that the son was Isaac, while Muslims insist it was Ishmael. Hasidic bridge builder, Lee Weisman demonstrates an impressive ability to find commonality within difference by focusing on the core meaning of this ultimate expression of devotion by Abraham and God’s mercy in preventing the sacrifice from going ahead. He also acknowledges the difference respectfully[i]. His blog is an impressive example of a journey in respect and coexistence.
Debating whose ancestor was ‘the great one’ is not useful, and I am pleased not to have noticed any arguments about this recently.  One of the least useful dynamics in interpersonal relationships is the attempt to position oneself as “the good one”, this often but not always also involves positioning the other as the bad one. The fight to be positioned on the pedestal can be bitter and intense. It is as if our value as human beings depends on it.

Sure, we all are happy to say that we are not perfect. Still, some of us seem extremely determined to deny certain flaws, or to attribute a large portion of blame to others. Our willingness to acknowledge our own faults and manage them makes us better people. Yet, to be focused on negativity can make us depressed and lose hope[ii]. We must balance honest self-criticism with fully appreciating our positive points[iii] and there is little value in berating ourselves. Similarly, we can take a dual approach to our iconic figures, preserve a positive image of them, even considering some generous explanations of their faults but not deny them. A generous approach is also useful when portraying the “representative” figure of the “other”.

Portrayals of Biblical Figures: “ours good”?
Within my “ultra-orthodox” environment there is a pattern of interpretation which portrays Abraham as perfect or nearly perfect, in sharp contrast to his nephew Lot who is denigrated and to an extent his eldest son Ishmael. This becomes more interesting when considering the fact that while Abraham is considered Jewish, the others are classified as not being Jewish[iv]. I must strongly quality and contextualize the issue, there is plenty of criticism of Jewish biblical figures in the Torah and even Moses is harshly reprimanded. Yet, the contrast between some portrayals of Abraham and others around his time interests me.

Lot/Lut Sinner or Prophet?
Let us begin with Lot (Lut in Arabic) the nephew of Abraham, who I was surprised to learn is considered a completely righteous prophet in Islam, calling the people of Sodom to repent[v]. While the Torah sees the sins of Sodom primarily about hostility to outsiders and cruelty to travellers partly motivated by greed[vi], Jewish sources see Lot prioritising financial opportunity over morality in his choice to live in Sodom. “And Lot raised his eyes, and he saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was entirely watered… Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and he pitched his tents until Sodom… And the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord[vii]”. Despite the evil of the people, Lot did not desist from living with them[viii].

Inner Strength and Loyalty
I was delighted when I found an alternative view in the commentary of Rabbi David Kimchi, known as Radak (which had been hidden away for 600 years then found among manuscripts in the royal French library in Paris)[ix]. In his view Lot was not concerned about the nature of the people because he was “so strong in his faith and decency that he did not learn from their ways[x]”. In fact, Lot goes on to eagerly welcome strangers[xi] if defiance of the sodomite xenophobic sentiment and policies. Radak also highlights Lot’s loyalty to Abraham and God when he leaves his grandfather to go with Abraham on his journey from their ‘land, birthplace and family’[xii] and again when he leaves the plenty of Egypt to return to the famine afflicted Canaan because  he did not want to part from Abraham[xiii].

Offering daughter for Rape?
One of the most shocking moments in the life of Lot is when he offers his daughters to a mob to be raped, when they demand he hand over his guests. Lot pleads: “Behold now I have two daughters who were not intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof[xiv]." One source ridicules Lot, “It is customary that a man would allow himself to be killed for his daughters and his wife, he would either kill or be killed and this one hands over his daughters to be toyed with, the Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, by your life (I swear), for himself he is keeping them, and in the end children at school will laugh when they read Lot’s daughters became pregnant from their father[xv]”.   

This portrayal of Lot is quite disturbing. Again there are alternative approaches. One praises him for this terrible sacrifice. Lot is compared to Moses who was prepared to sacrifice himself and Lot is prepared to sacrifice his precious daughters to protect his guests[xvi]. Perhaps more satisfying is the view that Lot was bluffing, with a preposterous offer, that the mob would have known was not serious. Like a person who says ‘my house is open, take whatever you want’…knowing that he won’t do it[xvii]”.

Perfect Abraham & Sarah?
The virtues of Abraham are strongly present in the Torah. He is even called to be “Tamim[xviii]” which could be translated as complete.  Yet, some commentaries criticise him and Sarah for the way they dealt with the conflict between Sarah and Abraham’s second wife. Hagar loses respect for her former mistress Sarah, when Hagar becomes pregnant[xix], while Sarah remains childless. Hagar claims that Sarah could not possibly be as good as she portrays herself to be, because if she was so good she would be rewarded with a child[xx].  “Sarah afflicted Hagar, and both her deeds and Abrahams complicity with them as deemed sinful[xxi].

Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said: “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart”, in that same spirit we could say there is nothing as beautiful as an imperfect human being who makes ethical choices and do some decent things despite their human frailties. There is no need to denigrate the iconic figures representing the other to make our heroes look greater in contrast to them. We have options in the way we interpret out texts and the portrayal of its characters, which includes seeing them in a more positive light as well acknowledging their flaws and faults. We need to resist the temptation to focus on the negatives in the other, and instead focus much more on that which brings us together.

[ii] Tanya Chapter 1 explores this dilemma
[iii] Rabbi Y. Y. Schneerson, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that just as it is wrong to deny our faults, it is equally wrong to deny our positive abilities.
[iv] This theme was brought to my attention by a Dvar Torah by Suart Klamen, on
[v] “Behold, their brother Lut said to them: “Will ye not fear (Allah)? I am to you a messenger worthy of all trust. So fear Allah and obey me… Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males, And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)!”
They said: “If thou desist not, O Lut! thou wilt assuredly be cast out!”
He said: “I do detest your doings.” (Surat ash-Shuara: 160-168)
We also (sent) Lut: He said to his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”
And his people gave no answer but this: they said, “Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!” (Surat al-Araf: 80-82)
Translation from
[vi] my post about the sin of Sodom in its treatment of outsiders
[vii] Genesis 13:10-13
[viii] Rashi
[ix] Title page of Pressburg Edition 1842, reprinted 2006
[x] Radak
[xi] Genesis 19:1-3
[xii] Genesis 12:1-5
[xiii] Genesis 13:1 and Radak commentary, these views also plays out in the different views of Lot in the commentary about a quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13:5-7). The Midrash explains that there was a major argument about grazing their animals on private Canaanite lands, with Lot’s people justifying it and Abraham’s staff strict about avoiding theft and this argument also involving Lot and Abraham themselves (Bereshit Rabba 41).  Another view is that this was really about Lot abandoning his faith in God to return to the idol worship practiced by the Canaanite and Perizite people (Zohar 84a and other sources).  Radak again has a more positive view of Lot. He explains that the dispute was simply about finding sufficient grazing for their ample livestock. 
[xiv] Genesis 19:7
[xv] Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 12, in fact he does sleep with them when they are convinced they are the only survivors after the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom
[xvi] Pirkey Drabbi Eliezer 25
[xvii] Rabbenu Chananel, quoted in Drashat Even Shuiv, cited in Torah Shlaima p.794, note 44
[xviii] Genesis 17:1
[xix] Genesis 16:4-6
[xx] Rashi
[xxi] Ramban to Genesis 16:6

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